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Sasha T. Goldberg

Thank you for these reflections on Kohan’s female anti-heroes; certainly she has produced a new realm of leading women that promise more diverse personalities (even when-if reductively witnessed as just ‘crazy’). I do wonder, though, how much ‘crazy’ gets weighted as real or not real within the realm of location, sex appeal, and performative sexuality.

Nancy strides confidently towards her viewers like a smoking gun, backed by a new twist on a Nancy Sinatra soundtrack and very clearly making “direct” eye contact; she may be trespassing in danger, but clearly she appears able to navigate the terrain. Alternately, we meet Piper with a kind of confidence that is quickly proved to be false—or if not false, fragile; only relevant outside of prison in her very white and very comfortable life—and Piper’s transition to “prison-ready” clearly moves her to an increasingly empowered (and powerful?) state. At least in light of the show, this transition is only possible when in an exiled site of crime and punishment, and not at home.

Is the craziness that gets inscribed on each of these characters of equal import, or do the confident Nancy (and Alex) of the shows get a pass on crazy, because of the crazy/sexy/cool appeal? Tropes like “crazy girls are good in bed” of course reverberate; as does the notion that some of the women (Lorna) are just practicing lesbianism until they are released; perhaps instead of “lesbian until graduation” there is “crazy” (both in denial of what ‘counts’ sexually, and in performing prison norms) until released?

OITNB Piper's arrival in prison
Sasha T. Goldberg

Wonderful clips which definitely get right to the heart of outsider and insider status, or perhaps in this context: Outside on the Inside. If justice (and “justice”) is ostensibly built upon the notion of Innocent Until Proven Guilty, there is a power reversal happening in the demonstrated acts of looking that in (media) prison: Even though convicted, the new crop of ladies (and those who would certainly eschew the title) are presumed to be outsiders within the prison code.

When Piper says, “I’m scared that I’m not myself in here and I’m scared that I am. Other people aren’t the scariest part of prison Dina. It’s coming face-to-face with who you really are. because once you’re behind these walls there’s no where to run, even if you could run. The truth catches up with you in here Dina and it’s the truth that’s going to make you her bitch” she perhaps reaches the real heart of darkness that the prison-gaze implies: One must first submit and then acculturate in order to survive; and yet, these survival skills bring out the more base—and perhaps more shrewd—instincts that rest underneath the pastiche of normatively.

Or, as Guns N’ Roses long ago promised: Welcome to the jungle, baby.

Julia Tutwiler Women's Prison
Vernon Shetley

Daisy’s post valuably points us back to the brutal realities of the contemporary American regime of mass incarceration, a regime that is, in Adam Gopnik’s words (New Yorker 1/30/2012), “the moral scandal of American life.” No doubt OITNB falls far short of an authentic depiction of prison existence, perhaps because of the imperatives of what is, ultimately, entertainment, meant to attract eyeballs in a competitive marketplace, perhaps in part because the realities of prison simply can’t be adequately represented in an audio/visual medium—note Daisy’s emphasis on the smells, the atmosphere, inside prison. A TV show can’t substitute for the firsthand experience of the world of incarceration Daisy’s student’s receive. Yet I’ve never finished watching an episode of OITNB thinking, to quote Richard Pryor’s famous routine, “Thank God we got penitentiaries.” Perhaps a program like OITNB shows at least the beginnings of a willingness on the part of the American public to rethink our vicious, inhumane system of punishments.

Julia Tutwiler Women's Prison
Maria San Filippo

Thank you for this fascinating “insider’s” take, Daisy, which made me reflect on the phenomenological limitations of the televisual (or cinematic) medium and how the prison genre attempts (or doesn’t) to get at that “essence” of what prison is actually like. One can imagine a Frederick Wiseman-style approach coming far closer, and BBC series Bad Girls’ drab palette and kitchen sink realism were memorably evocative, but still there’s a powerful sensory component that screen media is at a loss to convey.

Of course the ways OITNB falls short has also to do with more concrete realities of prison as well as the entertainment industry. As your clip demonstrates, OITNB places Piper (and her impeccably groomed eyebrows) at show’s center, and her relationship with Alex (the most liberally adapted element of Kerman’s memoir) is the most privileged story arc of season 1. Yet there’s an intriguing paradox here, that while Piper was “the Trojan horse” that got OITNB made (in Kohan’s account), she’s also the character many viewers detest. Perhaps it’s satisfying, then, to watch her trials and humiliations, and maybe even to admire her tenacity (as Maya’s post references). But for the show’s creators, “relatability” trumps likeability – and what’s relatable, in this viewpoint, is whiteness and middle-classness.

There’s a gendered aspect to it as well. As the discussion in/around Sasha’s post pointed out, there’s a premium put on masculinity that restricts it to non-Butch, non-Asian bodies. Femininity is highly restrictive as well, with the mandate that it be “beautiful” – which still gets defined mostly as young, thin, and femme. These, along with her whiteness and middle-classness, were the qualities that made Piper so attractive to the show’s creators. Interestingly, they’re also what made both fictional and real-life Piper an ideal drug mule.

Maya Montanez Smukler

Delaria’s f- America! “What’s a women’s prison without a butch dyke?”—a dare and demand that was met is so great. Another example of how OITNB takes full advantage of the conventions of the women’s prison genre and makes the setting where bad, crazy and butch are ordinary, because those are the expectations of prison, a way to introduce characters and performers that are underrepresented else where in TV. Maria, as you’ve pointed out in how the series plays with temporality, the way in which OITNB’s narrative structure includes a parallel pre-prison life we get to see both sides and as a result a much bigger picture and better characterization. But come to think of it, we haven’t even gotten Big Boo’s back story yet, have we? Season 2 can’t get here soon enough…

OITNB Piper's arrival in prison
Maria San Filippo

Great post, Vernon. I’m glad you brought up the important role that class plays in the women’s prison genre, in noting that the protagonist is typically wealthier and more educated than her fellow inmates. Where race is pronounced to be the chief determinant of prisoner alliances – where to sit in the cafeteria, e.g. – class is as prominent a divider in positioning Pennsatucky and her “white trash” posse as adversaries to posh Piper, whom they disdainfully call “College.”

One of my favorite features of OITNB is its use of flashbacks that establish the unfortunate constellation of factors that led to each woman’s incarceration; in most cases, lack of economic resources (whether for material needs, education, healthcare, legal defense…) were significantly if not wholly to blame. And impoverishment obviously doesn’t end with the prison sentence; Taystee has one of the choicest job assignments (library clerk) at FCI Danbury, but on the outside (as she discovers upon release) her employment prospects and corresponding ability to support and rehabilitate herself are nil – a realization that propels her back to the Big House.

Where OITNB is alert to the ways that our penal system is disproportionately punitive to low-income Americans, it has been less cognizant of the ways that financial hardship remains a burden even behind bars. The real-life Piper, Piper Kerman, has become an advocate for prison reform, fighting on behalf of measures such as the recently successful FCC regulation of charges for prison phone calls. Bringing more attention to the economic realities of prison life is one way that OITNB can further distinguish itself from its more exploitative incarnations within the women’s prison genre. Tomorrow’s post, by sociologist Daisy Ball, will delve into these and other ways in which OITNB falls short of doing America’s prisoners justice.

Links to Kerman discussing prison reform:

Vernon Shetley

The story about Delaria deciding to abandon the US over her disappointment at TV casting practices echoes a key episode in the life of Bruce Lee. An oft-told story (true in broad outlines, though the details are more complicated) is that Lee, losing out on the part of the wandering Shaolin monk Caine in the Kung Fu TV series to a non-Asian (David Carradine in “yellowface”), left American in disgust, returning to Hong Kong to star in the series of films that would make him a martial-arts legend. While Asian representation in the media has increased since the days of Kung Fu, it still seems that Asian characters are likely to be women (Lucy Liu on Elementary, Sandra Oh on Gray’s Anatomy) or emasculated caricatures like Han on 2 Broke Girls. Masculinity, it seems, is a precious substance, too precious to allow butches or Asians to share in it.

Maria San Filippo

Great post, Sasha. Odd indeed that while the Butch is such a stalwart stereotype of prison narratives – as Vernon Shetley’s post tomorrow will attest – she was an afterthought of the OITNB creators. Especially since, apart from prison narratives and the occasional LGBT indie film (Go Fish, Pariah) in which non-Butch performers more often than not play Butch, the “Very Butch” Lesbian is virtually absent from any screen not displaying dyke porn. And so she has become the dominant signifier of authenticity – more than clothes, hair, nails, sex acts, or anything else – in representations of queer women and lesbianism. Her exceptionalism in this respect isn’t such an honor, of course, given that she’s relegated to tokenistic rarity in popular culture. That OITNB has a full-time, full-on Butch played by a full-time, full-on Butch, and that her character is not merely tough but also complex, loveable, funny, hot, and cool, makes it – and Big Boo, and DeLaria – pioneers as well as outlaws.

Daisy Ball

To highlight the racial component of the conversation, consider Kohan’s depiction of Piper as “Trojan Horse” in an interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross:

In a lot of ways Piper was my Trojan Horse. You’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals. But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories. But it’s a hard sell to just go in and try to sell those stories initially. The girl next door, the cool blonde, is a very easy access point, and it’s relatable for a lot of audiences and a lot of networks looking for a certain demographic. It’s useful.”

[listen to the interview here:]

Are audiences really not interested in the “fascinating tales” of women of color unless they’re accompanied by the story of a white, upper-class woman? Trojan Horse, or crutch, or…?

Sasha T. Goldberg

There is something, too, in this discussion of the compulsive, binge-watch, all you can eat/view gazing, that reminds me of the physical embodiment of all the watching; Summer, Pride Season, beautiful out, and hordes of queer women (and many other identity types, as well) were suddenly asking the same question: Have you seen Orange Is The New Black?

Embedded in this question, and in the news of the series, which both spread like wildfire, was also the information that Summer’s gaze—and the gays—were both definitively staying indoors; at least until the season finale had been watched. Interestingly, this watching did not become a communal activity; OITNB seemed to be consumed, en masse, individually—as long as one could keep eyes open, there was another episode for the fix. I include myself in this, and admit: It’s the only time I’ve ever watched an episode of a show on my iPhone.

However, LGBT-centered media, which has so often brought enthusiasts of the queer gaze together for viewing parties in community settings (and here I’m thinking of “If These Walls Could Talk,” “Queer As Folk,” or “The L Word”—viewed together in LGBT centers, bars, or private homes), seems to have firmly ushered in a temporal/technological update with OITNB. Word traveled via status update, feed, text, or, the now much less frequent phone call; but the series itself seemed to be consumed at home, in solitude, and, after hours and hours of watching in domestic solitary lock down, viewers stepped away from their televisions and computers perhaps just as disoriented—and ultimately triumphant—as Piper, herself.

A new product, gaze, and series was born with Orange Is The New Black—television at its addictive best—and, just a quickly, a way to own the experience immediately and entirely—at least until Season Two.